2015 Natural & Human Disaster Recap

A number of destructive natural disasters and one major human disaster occurred in the first 9 months of 2015.

The worst natural disaster in terms of loss of life and property damage was the magnitude 8.1 earthquake that struck Nepal in April. The quake triggered landslides in the mountain valleys and an avalanche on Mt. Everest. Thousands of structures were destroyed, entire villages flattened, and hundreds of thousands made homeless. More than 9,000 people died in the tragic event.

In Colombia, on May 18, a landslide triggered by upstream flooding of a local river killed 78 in the town of Salgar. An 8.3 earthquake off the coast of Chile started a tsunami that caused damage in coastal villages. The earthquake killed 12.

Overall, hurricanes and typhoons took a smaller toll than normal. No hurricanes made landfall in the US, through September. Tropical Storm Erika hit the island of Dominica in the Caribbean in August, taking 20 lives. Typhoon Togage struck Japan in September, creating floods and landslides that killed 69, with another 19 missing. In August, Typhoon Ineng battered northern Luzon in the Philippines. 21 died and 15 were reported missing.

Northern California wildfires took 6 lives, destroyed over 1,000 homes, and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and brushland.

Perhaps the biggest disaster of all in 2015 is the ongoing refugee crisis. In the first 8 months of the year, more than 300,000 people fleeing war and oppression in Africa and the Middle East crossed the Mediterranean into Europe. The flood of people seeking safety continues unabated, overwhelming many of the smaller European countries trying to deal with the influx. It is a manmade disaster, monumental in terms of human suffering.

The migrants travel at great risk, often with no food or water and only the clothes they are wearing. In the past 2 years, more than 6,000 have died making the crossing. About half the migrants are children. While Germany and a few other European countries have agreed to resettle some of the refugees, many EU countries have closed their borders, leaving thousands of refugees in limbo. With winter weather coming, those who have not found shelter will be at even greater risk.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, does not have the funds to help resettle the heavy influx into Europe. UNHCR is struggling to find the money to operate the camps it has already set up to house more than 13 million refugees around the world. Many governments, including Turkey and Pakistan, also operate refugee camps, as do a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to UN statistics, the total number of forcibly displaced persons worldwide stands at 60 million.

As long as there is war, there will be refugees. Unfortunately, mankind has not yet learned how to live in peace, and has not yet learned how to deal with war’s inevitable collateral damage.

Tsunami & Earthquake Networks

Someplace on earth the ground is shaking. According to USGS estimates, there are an average of 1,300,000 earthquakes on our planet every year, or one every 24 seconds. 98% of those quakes are under magnitude 4.0 and many occur in remote locations, so most of us are unaware of the constant seismic activity, even when it happens close by.

However between 1,500 and 2,000 annual quakes are in the magnitude 5.0 to 9.0 range. Those are the quakes that can do damage on land, and possibly trigger a tsunami if one strong enough hits on the seafloor where tectonic plates converge.

Where do USGS and other reporting centers get their real time information? Two worldwide seismic hazard networks report earthquakes as they happen, and provide early warning when a tsunami starts rolling toward land.

Global Seismographic Network (GSN) is a permanent digital network of 150 land-based and ocean-bottom seismometers positioned in earthquake prone locations around the world, and connected by a telecommunications network. GSN is a partnership among USGS, the National Science Foundation, and Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), a consortium of 100 worldwide labs and universities. Although US based, GSN is fully coordinated with the international community. GSN stations are operated by USGS and UC San Diego. The network determines location and magnitude of earthquakes anywhere in the world as they happen. The data is used for emergency response, hazard mitigation, research, and tsunami early warning for seafloor locations.

Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) is the main component of an international tsunami warning system. The DART system is based on instant detection and relay of ocean floor pressure changes. DART stations consist of an ocean bottom sensor that picks up changes in pressure as the tsunami wave passes and sends the data to a nearby communications buoy, which transmits it to a satellite, which in turn relays it within seconds to tsunami warning centers around the world.

The US has deployed 39 DART stations in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Caribbean. Australia and Peru have also installed DART systems, and since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 200,000 people, the nations bordering the Indian Ocean have cooperated in the installation of 6 Indian Ocean DART stations, along with 17 seismic satellite stations. The DART data, along with GSN and satellite data, flow into two major tsunami warning centers: the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska. It is the job of the tsunami warning centers to issue alerts and warnings to population centers in the path of a developing tsunami.

Although the GSN and DART systems have proved effective, NASA is testing a GPS system that can spot the epicenter location and earthquake magnitude 10 times faster, giving those in peril extra seconds and minutes to evacuate before the tsunami strikes land. NASA is still testing the system.